by Bill Wine
It’s about time. Literally “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the 2008 winner of three technical Oscars and that year’s Oscar-nomination leader with 13 – count ‘em, 13 – nods, is a large-scale romantic drama loosely based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward.
In New Orleans, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born “under unusual circumstances” on the final day of World War I in 1918. His mother dies in childbirth and he’s abandoned by his wealthy, button-manufacturing father. He arrives in the world with a bizarre condition: he’s an infant, but he has an elderly man’s wrinkled, infirm body. He’s taken in by Queenie, played by Taraji P. Henson, an African-American caretaker at an assisted-living facility for the (actual) elderly.
Pitt stars as Benjamin throughout his odd life, aided by digital special effects, with the motion-capture process grafting Pitt’s face over other actors’ bodies to portray the title character at different stages.
Because he is aging in reverse, when he meets Daisy – the woman he’s always loved since childhood – played by Cate Blanchett, they would appear to be at very different stages of their lives. But these soulmates are aging in opposite directions, so they cannot grow old –or young – together.
The screenplay by Eric Roth, which recalls another twentieth-century-odyssey epic,“Forrest Gump,” is burdened with a protagonist who is on the passive side in such an extended narrative (over two-and-a-half-hours), so it occasionally meanders. But, in detailing all of Benjamin’s adventures from cradle to grave, it eventually leaves an impression that overcomes the built-in limitations.
Director David Fincher’s sprawling fable is brave enough to teeter on the edge of ridiculousness without ever falling in. And Fincher does a splendid job with visual perspective, altering it so that we eventually take Benjamin’s gimmicky reverse-aging process for granted.
Pitt and Blanchett, who co-starred in “Babel,” have an easy chemistry. Their love affair is certainly crucial, but is not as prominent as you might think. While Blanchett shines, the feeling persists that a more aggressive, skilled actor might have done more with the central character than what Pitt does. Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, he is certainly at least adequate. As for Best Supporting Actress nominee Henson, she gives yet another electrifying performance as Benjamin’s adoptive mother, as an inner light seems to make her every on-screen moment shine.
But it is the moments of magic realism and emotionally haunting imagery that give Fincher’s film its kick. And it is Fitzgerald’s central conceit – examining a life lived backward, thus affording us a fresh look at the way time works on us – that remains the film’s arresting metaphoric backbone and one which helped it earn nominations for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, among others. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is more than just curious. It’s bittersweet, tender, earnest, melancholic and atmospheric. And if it’s not actually on the button, it sure is close.
Concert at St. Paul’s ‘sung with power and poignancy’
by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the “Conversion of St. Paul” with a Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 26. Music director Andrew Kotylo led a program of works mostly composed by Herbert Howells.
St. Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” was one of the greatest missionaries in history. His travels took him to the far corners of the ancient Roman Empire. He and St. Peter, the “Prince of the Apostles,” are the patron saints of the “Eternal City” of Rome. Interestingly, St. Paul is the patron saint of London’s great cathedral, from which the Bishop of London sent out Anglican missionaries across the British Empire.
Kotylo bracketed the service with stunning performances of Howell’s “Rhapsody in D-flat” at the prelude and “Paean” at the postlude at the organ. His choices of registration were symphonic in scope. The choir sang the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from Howell’s “Saint Paul’s Service” beautifully, catching the extravagant emotions of the former and the darkening glow of the latter. William Mathias’ dazzling “Let the People Praise Thee, O God” was the anthem at the Offertory. It was sung with power and poignancy.
EVENSONG & VESPERS The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, will mark the close of the Christmas season